The worst games by Hall of Famers (1950-onward)

Last week I wrote a column trying to answer an interesting question: What were the best games ever by Hall of Fame players? That column can be easily flipped around and become: What were the worst games ever by Hall of Famers? That’s what we’ll look at here.

The basic guidelines and approaches will remain the same as last week. There will be two top ten lists, one for hitters and one for pitchers. In both cases, I’ll figure out the answers by using WPA, the story stat. The concept behind it WPA simple: How does each plate appearance in the game affect either team’s chances for winning?

Some readers didn’t like the WPA-centric nature of last week’s column. By its nature, WPA rates big moments late in the game much higher than earlier and ranks performance in close games more than how one does in a blowout.

This is true, and valid criticism, but that in no way negates using WPA. Simply put, there is more than one way to define a great performance. Defining a great performance by how a player’s at-bats raises or lowers his team’s chances to win the game is a fair definition, and that’s what WPA captures.

So let’s get on with it. According to WPA, what were the worst games by any Hall of Famers since 1950 (when we have WPA info)? Hitters first.

10. September 6, 1959: Roberto Clemente.-0.553 WPA.

Most of these games on the hitter list are similar: They come in close games that the Hall of Famer’s team lost. Here, Clemente’s Pirates fell 2-1 to Philadelphia.

As for Clemente himself, not only did he go 0-for-4 with a strikeout (and two of his outs ended innings), but, most importantly, he saved his worst for last. Clemente stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and no one out with his team down 2-1 in the ninth, only to line to the pitcher for a double play where the runner at third was thrown out. In one swing, Pittsburgh’s chances of winning plummeted from 64 to 14 percent.

Oh, and Clemente also committed an error in the game, too. That doesn’t affect his WPA, but sure adds to his lousy day.

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Frank Robinson recovered nicely from his bad day.

9. April 28, 1957: Frank Robinson. -0.555 WPA.

The Braves beat the Reds 3-2 on a day Frank Robinson went 0-for-4 with a walk and two double plays. On the day, he came to the plate with seven runners on base, including four in scoring position, but only one scored—and that one came home on Mr. Robinson’s first double play of the day.

His second twin killing ended the game. With the Reds trailing the Braves 3-2 in the ninth and runners on the corners with one out, he bounced into a 5-4-3 twin killing, ending a dangerous rally.

Random fact for the game: It was the first career victory for Braves pitcher Red Murff, who was 36 years old. He only had one other MLB win.

8. September 29, 1980: Mike Schmidt. -0.557 WPA.

This one is a little different, as Schmidt’s team won: Phillies 7, Cubs 6 (15). It was an exciting game, too, as it was 4-4 after 14, and the Phillies had to score three in the bottom of the 15th to overcome a Chicago rally in top half of the frame.

While Schmidt may have been the NL MVP on the season, he was anything but on this day, staggering to a 1-for-7 game.

Two key moments crippled his score. He grounded into an inning-ending double play in the fifth, and he popped up with the tying run on. Aside from that, he also grounded into a double play with one out and the bases loaded in the fifth inning.

7. August 3, 1963: Luis Aparicio. -0.569 WPA.

The Baltimore shortstop went 0-for-5 with a GIDP in a 3-2 loss to the Yankees. Twice he ended an inning. The big at-bat, predictably, came at the end of the game as he grounded to his counterpart for a 6-4-3 double play with the bases loaded to end the game.

That double play vindicated a move by Yankee skipper Ralph Houk, who had intentionally walked the hitter just before Aparicio, pinch hitter Russ Snyder, in order to set up the double play.

6. September 26, 1999: Rickey Henderson. -0.571 WPA.

Henderson got a hit, singling in one of his five at-bats, but he also struck out and grounded into a double play. In fact, the fanning and twin killing came at extremely crucial situations. With Henderson’s Mets trailing the Phillies 3-2 in the bottom of the seventh, Rickey killed a rally by fanning with two outs and runners on the corners. With a chance to redeem himself two innings later, Henderson hit into a game-ending double play with the bases loaded.

That’s already the fourth different ninth-inning double play on this list. It makes sense that people who did that in one-run losses would score pretty highly. A two-out GIDP with the bases loaded in the ninth reduces a team’s chances of victory from 46 percent to zero.

5. September 9, 1962: Carl Yastrzemski. -0.572 WPA

Like the Schmidt game, Yaz’s team won in extra innings, 5-4 in 16 frames over the Yankees. As one might expect based on Yaz’s placement, his day was even worse, though: 0-for-7 with three Ks and two double plays. Eleven men were on base in his various at-bats, and none ever scored.

Yeah, that’s a bad day. Check that, it was a bad game. This was the second part of a doubleheader, and Yaz went 2-for-4 with a double, homer, walk, two RBI and three runs in the first game, which Boston won. Not an entirely wasted day for him.

4. May 14, 1959: Stan Musial. -0.578 WPA.

Musial actually got on base twice—both times by walking—but was otherwise was 0-for-3 with an RBI sac fly in this game the Redbirds lost to the Braves, 8-7. It’s odd a player with two times on base and an RBI would make this list, but it’s based on how the game went.

Musial’s walks came when it didn’t matter, and the sac fly came when it looked like the game was out of reach: In the bottom of the eighth with the Cards trailing 8-3.

The key moment, of course, took place in the ninth. You can probably guess what happened, right? Yes, it was a double play. Yes, the bases were loaded. Yes, it ended the game.

3. May 2, 1957: Roy Campanella. -0.617 WPA.

Like Yaz, Campy went 0-for-7 in a 16-innning game. Unlike Yaz, his team lost 3-2 to the Cards. Campy scores worse than Yaz because he ended the inning four different times. That creates a sense of finality in any would-be rally that can really hurt WPA. Each time Campy ended the inning, there were two runners on base. Finishing off four rallies in one game? Yeah, that’s bad.

2. July 25, 1959: Al Kaline. -0.663 WPA.

Kaline went 0-for-5 with an intentional walk as the Yanks defeated his Tigers 9-8. In a bit of an upset, the game didn’t end with Kaline grounding into a double play with the bases loaded. No, there were already two outs when Kaline grounded out with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth. He did the exact same thing in the sixth inning, too. Kaline got the inning-ending double play out of his system in the first inning when there were “only” runners on the corners.

On the day, 11 men were on when Kaline came to the plate, and he didn’t drive any of them home. Four of those runners were on third, and none of them ever scored.

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Someone’s got to come in last.

1. September 28, 1990: Dave Winfield. -0.673 WPA.

What does it take to have the worst score by any Hall of Fame batter? Well…

Winfield ended the first inning by grounding to the first baseman with two out and a runner on second.

Two innings later, Winfield tapped a meek grounder to the pitcher with two outs and runners on first and second to end the inning.

Get used to seeing the phrase “to end the inning.”

In the fifth inning, with a runner on second base and two outs, Winfield bounced one to the first baseman to—you know what’s coming, right?—end the inning.

In the seventh inning, Dave Winfield fanned on four pitches with two out and no one on. In a clear pattern, this ended the inning.

In the ninth—well, you know it already. Bases loaded, one out, and trailing by one, Winfield bounced into 6-4-3 double play.

Not only did Winfield end five of the nine innings, but he never hit the ball out of the infield.

Heck, the double play was the only time it got past the first baseman.

Now for the pitchers.

12. May 9, 1953: Robin Roberts. -0.887 WPA

Wait, 12th place? Yup.

WPA’s reliance on clutch moments late in the game results in the top ten consisting entirely of disastrous relief stints. (Even if a starter had a horrible ending, he had to pitch halfway decent to make it to the end). If you want to know worst starting performances, Game Score probably works better, as the guys with the worst Game Scores ensure their team can’t win the game.

That’s why I include this: WPA’s worst starting pitching performance by an immortal since 1950. Roberts was a workhorse, and it was the first game of a doubleheader, so manager Steve O’Neill kept Roberts in all game. Never mind that he’d coughed up Phillie leads of 1-0, 2-1, and a 4-4 tie, he was still there in the bottom of the ninth to turn a 6-5 lead into a 7-6 loss.

At least Philly won the second game that day.

11. September 24, 1995: Dennis Eckersley: -0.872 WPA

May as well put in #11 then. Besides, this is a special game in its own right. Dennis Eckersley set the modern standard for a closer while with the A’s, and this was his last save opportunity in Oakland. He entered the game with one out and no one on in the ninth and an 87 percent chance for an A’s win. It took him just six pitches to turn it into a loss.

10. June 11, 1952: Satchel Paige. -0.896 WPA

They don’t make relief stints like this any more. Thank God. After Paige let an inherited runner score in the seventh, the Browns kept him in for the end. Paige suffered through a six-run ninth, which only came to an end with a walk-off grand slam by Red Sox catcher Sammy White for an 11-9 Boston win.

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He only allowed two inside-the-park homers in his career, but one sure was a doozy.

9. May 12, 1978: Rich Gossage. -0.904 WPA

Gossage only faced one batter, but—as you can probably guess—that guy hit a walk-off home run, transforming a 3-2 Yankee lead into a 4-3 Royals win.

It wasn’t just any walk-off homer, either. “Famous” Amos Otis blasted an inside-the-park, walk-off homer. Nice.

8. June 7, 1985: Rollie Fingers. -0.910 WPA

Word to the wise: Get used to seeing Fingers on this list.

Entering the game in the eighth, Fingers immediately allowed a two-run homer to turn a one-run lead to a one-run deficit.

When Milwaukee scored three in the top of the ninth, they let Fingers try to shut down the opposition again. Instead, he blew another lead. Milwaukee managed to win, but despite Fingers, not because of him.

7. May 13, 1967: Phil Niekro. -0.931 WPA

WPA doesn’t take defense into account, and the gloves behind Niekro didn’t help him here. Entering the game in the relief, he blew a one-run lead in the eighth and another one-run lead in the ninth before losing the game in the tenth. The first two runs were both unearned. Then again, Niekro committed one of those two errors.

6. July 10, 1979: Rollie Fingers. -0.942 WPA

Did you know Fingers once played for the Padres? San Diego fans may want to forget it based on this game. They entered the bottom of the ninth up 5-1 but lost. Only three runs were charged to Fingers, but he let two inherited runners score before allowing three of the four runners he faced to come around on a Del Unser walk-off homer.

5. August 13, 1986: Rich Gossage. -0.961 WPA

Another entry, another walk-off homer. If a game-ending double play is the worst thing a hitter can do in a close game, allowing a game-losing home run is the worst thing a pitcher can do, which makes sense.

Gossage’s team (the Padres again) entered the ninth with a 96 percent chance of winning, thanks to a 7-4 lead. Strikeout, double, walk, strikeout, RBI single, walk-off home run. As it happens, the blast was Chris Chambliss’ 185th and final career homer.

4. May 18, 1996: Dennis Eckersley. -0.973 WPA

Among its flaws, WPA doesn’t take park factor into account. A one-run lead is treated the same, regardless if it’s the Astrodome or Coors Field. So while Eck needs to shoulder some blame for blowing a 8-4 lead in the ninth inning of this game, it probably shouldn’t be seen as the fourth-worst ever, because it was in Coors Field.

It was Eck’s 18th game with St. Louis, and only 20 games since his previous worst WPA day, No. 11 on this list. His implosion also overshadowed teammate John Mabry hitting for the cycle.

3. September 6, 1974: Rollie Fingers. -1.003 WPA

The danger of an old-school fireman: He could pitch more than one inning, which meant his best games were more impressive than a current three-out specialist, but his worst games were some real howlers. In this game, Fingers pitched 3.2 innings, allowing nine hits, one walk, and four runs to score—five if you include the inherited runner he let in. In the process, he sank Oakland leads of 1-0 and 4-3 before losing the game 5-4 in the eleventh.

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When Fingers was bad, he was very bad.

2. July 20, 1974: Rollie Fingers. -1.036 WPA

This is a tough one to really hold against Fingers. The big play was a two-base error by first baseman Joe Rudi in the ninth that put the eventual game-tying and winning runs on second and third with none out. Given that Fingers retired the next two batters on a pop out and strikeout, respectively, the game would’ve been over otherwise.

Maybe the real person to blame is neither Fingers nor Rudi, but manager Alvin Dark for over-managing. He kept moving guys all over the diamond all game long. By the end, four different A’s played in left (including Rudi), four at third, three at catcher, two at second, and two at first. The game ended with Sal Bando playing second base, the only time he did that in his 1,468 games with the A’s. That game was an error waiting to happen.

1. July 28, 1951: Bob Feller. -1.054 WPA.

Feller’s score came from blowing not one, but two, extra-inning leads.

Feller entered the came in the bottom of the 15th with the Indians up 3-2 over Boston, Cleveland’s first lead of the day. Two batters later, the game was tied. But he was Feller, and it was the 1950s, so manager Al Lopez kept him in anyway.

He was still there in the 16th when Cleveland held a new 4-3 lead. The lead didn’t last, as Feller first let Ted Williams double home the tying run before surrendering the game-losing run in dramatic fashion: A walk-off grand slam from center fielder Clyde Vollmer.

References & Resources
This project was based on the usage of Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index.

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Comments

  1. mike said...

    How would Albert Pujols in the first game of this year rank in the list (3 dp’s)?  I think we can assume that he is a probably HOF’er.

  2. Chris J. said...

    Dave – thanks.

    mike – That game wouldn’t make the list with a WPA of “only” -0.436.  It’s not even the worst one-game WPA by Pujols, as he had a -0.542 on 4/13/05, but that also wouldn’t make the list (though it nearly would).

  3. gdc said...

    “A two-out GIDP with the bases loaded in the ninth reduces a team’s chances of victory from 46 percent to zero.”

    Think you meant 1 out GIDP

  4. Steve Treder said...

    Nah, two-out DPs are the worst.  Pablo Sandoval last year could pull of that feat—and with no one on base to boot!

  5. Ralph C. said...

    Okay, how about this idea for a future article—the best games byr the worst players in major league history?? Huh? Whatcha think about that?

    Think it over.

  6. Chris J. said...

    Treder – ah, the agony of rooting for the world champion team. .  . 

    Ralph – that does sound interesting.  But it’s tricky defining worst players.

  7. Dave B said...

    These kinds of articles are why Hardball Times remains one of my few go-to sites every day.  It’s the perfect balance between truly historical achievements of famous ballplayers and complete triviality.  plus I’m a sucker for any list with a walk-off inside-the-park homerun. 

    Thanks Chris!

  8. Bob Evans said...

    Very very fun.  Had to share w/my brothers.

    Tricky to define the worst players?  C’mon, Chris, I’m pretty sure you root for them.  Buh-dup bup!

  9. Zubin said...

    I imagine sometime in the past you covered this, but what are the worst games by any player?  Or for that matter the best?

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